One of the stories often told about Palm Springs’ early history (a story like many others with one foot in the truth and the other hovering somewhere near it) is that the valley was a magnet to Hollywood celebrities because many of them had a clause in their contracts forbidding them to travel farther than 120 miles from their studios. Those restrained by such contracts soon discovered that the distance from Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street to the corner of Alejo Road and South Palm Canyon Drive was exactly 113.4 miles.
The list of actors, entertainers, painters, dancers, singers, sculptors, and other artists who have visited Palm Springs is endless. So far, Picasso is about the only major 20th-century artist we have found who didn’t hang out here. The list of creatives who extended their stay and actually put down some seasonal roots is not quite as long. Typed out and double-spaced, it might only extend from the airport to the foot of Tahquitz Canyon Way. (Wild rumors that Igor Stravinsky had a tiki-themed condo here have not been substantiated, though Albert Einstein, an artist of physics, was a frequent guest at the Willows Inn.)
A short list of artists — comprising those residents who, by a combination of living in the valley, creating their art here, or by growing the reputation and allure of Greater Palm Springs by dint of their larger-than-life personas — would still be considerable. We have doubtless left out one or more of our readers’ favorites. So, call this a short list of a sampling of the short list.
Cat City’s O’Keeffe
While she had American parentage (and illustrious ancestors, though the maternal and paternal branches were on opposite sides during the Civil War), Pelton was born and spent much of her early life in Europe. After her father’s death, she and her mother returned to Brooklyn. Pelton studied at the Pratt Institute and, after graduating, served as an assistant to her former instructor, Arthur Wesley Dow, who was also instrumental in Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistic development.
Like many artists of her generation, Pelton made a pilgrimage to visit Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, New Mexico, where six painters had founded the famous Taos Society of Artists. Their efforts greatly influenced Pelton, whose early work had clung to a more imaginative style. After her mother’s death in 1921 Pelton began a decade-long journey that took her to Hawai’i, California, Lebanon, and Syria.
Agnes Pelton at work. The artist never learned to drive, so she often had to rely on friends to drive her to painting locations.
In 1932 she visited Cathedral City, at that time just a few buildings scattered along the highway and a few juke joints owned by mobsters. She intended to stay for a short period, paint some desert scenes, and move on. But something about the desert and mountains captivated Pelton and wouldn’t allow her to leave. She wrote, “The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit.”
She built a small house on a street known today as Agnes Pelton Way. It became the valley’s first art gallery, and in an informal and understated way, Pelton presided over a salon for resident and visiting artists who came to study the intense desert light that had so captivated her. She lived and painted at her small compound for 30 years until her death in 1961. By her wishes, her ashes were scattered in the San Jacinto Mountains.
It would be almost 35 years before Pelton received the recognition she deserved. In 1995, Palm Springs Art Museum curator Michael Vakian staged an exciting retrospective of her paintings that traveled on to other museums and proved to the public that Pelton’s work equaled that of her contemporaries, O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin. According to Daniel Cornell, the Donna and Cargill MacMillan Jr. director of art at PSAM, Pelton “was a member of a group of transcendental artists that included Raymond Jonson. The artists in this group were hugely influential on American painting because they were trying to communicate the transcendental notion of European modernism of artists like Kandinsky, the idea that abstractions can give tangible form to spirituality.”
Cornell points out that Martin was equally comfortable painting in both abstract and natural modes, though if you look at her depictions of smoketrees (she was particularly fond of the way they captured light), it is obvious that she also intended to express notions of spirituality through these natural representations. It is an aspiration and vision not unlike those ascribed to O’Keeffe. Further recognition of Pelton’s artistry and importance came about in 2009 when Orange County Museum of Art curator Karen Moss staged an exhibition entitled Illumination. In it, she hung Pelton’s work side by side with O’Keeffe’s. The consensus among the public and professionals was that Pelton’s vision and mastery of her art was every bit as good and, in some works, better than that of her more famous contemporary.
Frank Sinatra and friends, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jr., and Jack Carter, at the Riviera. Sinatra gave himself to the valley in a hundred different ways.
The Penny from Heaven
When Frank Sinatra finally hit it big in the late ’40s, one of the first things he did was find himself a place to get away from the stressful demands of his career. In 1947, he chose Palm Springs and had E. Stewart Williams build him a classic midcentury home now known as Twin Palms. It wasn’t earth-shattering news. The biggest names in arts and entertainment had already been flocking to the valley — many of them building second homes — for a quarter of a century.
But, here, none of those stars would ever shine as brightly as Sinatra’s.
Frank Sinatra hung his famous fedora in many houses and saloons. Sure, there was the New York City penthouse, the Holmby Hills estate, and even a New Jersey beach house for days when things got a little too sweltering across the Hudson River, but the place he called home, the little valley that could scarcely contain his talent, zest for life, and generosity, was Greater Palm Springs.
Sinatra only stayed a decade at Twin Palms (it’s rumored that he soured on the place after his divorce from Ava Gardner). He lived the next 30 years at his ever-growing Wonder Palms Compound in Rancho Mirage with occasional forays up Highway 74 to Villa Maggio, his mountain estate named after the character he played in From Here to Eternity that garnered him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. To be sure, Sinatra was never stingy with his talent. He and Rat Pack pals Dean Martin (a fellow part-time resident), Sammy Davis Jr., and Joey Bishop always packed them in at the Riviera, and Sinatra was a frequent visitor to other valley venues, such as the Purple Room, where he supported his fellow entertainers.
In short, his mere presence would have been enough to ensure that his larger-than-life legacy lived on in the Coachella Valley for another couple centuries. But it was the singer’s philanthropy that truly made a lasting mark. Former PSL Editor-in-Chief Stewart Weiner once detailed in this magazine Sinatra’s stunning acts of generosity, from buying a piano for a young prodigy in Indio whose parents couldn’t afford one to the bill he paid at Eisenhower Medical Center for a child whose parents lacked health insurance and the means to cover her treatment.
Whenever he could, Sinatra gave anonymously. However, when it mattered, he gave everything, even his name. He lent his name and celebrity to a golf tournament in 1991 that raised a fortune for Eisenhower Medical Center and with his wife, Barbara, raised millions to build the hospital’s Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center, a facility devoted to helping abused and traumatized children. It was a crowning achievement in the decades he spent giving to his neighbors.
Detroit-born Salvatore “Sonny” Bono lived several different lives … and did very well at all of them. He got his start as a songwriter and gofer with Phil Spector in Los Angeles and in 1962 met a 16-year-old girl named Cherilyn Sarkisian in a coffee shop. The duo’s initial success plateaued, but was revived with the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour in the early ’70s. After the couple split personally and professionally, Bono kept performing, but failed to achieve the level of success he’d enjoyed with Cher. In his own words, he “semi-retired to Palm Springs,” where he opened his namesake restaurant and began a long battle with city bureaucracy that culminated with Bono’s successful run for mayor of Palm Springs in 1988.
Among the many plans Bono had when he arrived in office was to resuscitate the glamour and prestige of Old Palm Springs. He thought a film festival might do the trick. “At that time, everybody thought it was the stupidest idea they’d ever heard,” Palm Springs International Film Festival board vice chairman David Baron told Palm Springs Life last year. The festival premiered in 1990. To everyone’s surprise (even Bono’s), more than 17,000 film patrons showed up — despite the fact that the event wasn’t exactly bursting with A-list films or celebrities. However, the first year did feature Cinema Paradiso, which not only won the festival’s highest honor but went on to win the Oscar that year for Best Foreign Film. That bit of luck legitimized the festival and helped it to build on each successive year’s success.
Mary and Sonny Bono celebrating in classic style. Though Sonny stepped away from the film festival when he was elected to Congress, he saw it grow beyond his wildest dreams.
Two years later when Bono was elected to the U.S House of Representatives, he had to delegate a lot of the responsibility for the festival. Nevertheless, he continued to attend and his and his wife Mary’s gala party was still the event to attend. In Bono’s day, it was tradition to honor one of Hollywood’s old guard, such as James Stewart. These days, the honorees number more than a half dozen … and all of them are A-listers. Whether by design or kismet, PSIFF is perfectly positioned in terms of timing and geography to be the most important film festival leading into awards season. As much as the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Golden Globes are indicators of what to expect on Oscar night, it is the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Sonny Bono’s crazy little dream, that is the true insider’s barometer of the season.
“At the time everyone thought [the film festival] was the
stupidest idea they’d ever heard.”
The Homegrown Rock Star
There have always been canyons, washes, and dunes in the desert. But it took a tall redhead with a penchant for renegade jam sessions to give this desert a soundtrack.
Raised in Palm Desert, Josh Homme, now 44, was just a teen when he and the members of his band, Kyuss, would load up their cars with amps and guitars, drive to the middle of nowhere, fire up gas-powered generators, and play all night. Accompanied by the hum of the generator, the music was gritty, heavy psychedelic rock, which came to be a signature “desert” sound.
Those parties have since been immortalized in a number of documentaries and they are the reason Palm Desert was named one of the top seven rock-and-roll cities in America by Blender magazine.
Josh Homme helped put the desert on the musical map.
When the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival began in 1999, it seemed like a natural evolution of this scene. Though it’s now a premier festival attracting the biggest names in entertainment, Coachella began as a celebration of independent, dance, and punk music. Its stages are not far from the unkempt, wild desert where the generator parties used to be held.
While Homme wasn’t the only force behind those pop-up parties, as one of the desert’s most successful rockers he became the face of them. Homme left the Coachella Valley to play with Seattle-based grunge band Screaming Trees before forming Queens of the Stone Age, a band that garnered the attention of MTV and became darlings of Rolling Stone. In 2011, Them Crooked Vultures, a group he formed with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, collected a Grammy Award, while the Post Pop Depression album he produced for Iggy Pop received wide critical acclaim.
His sludgy, groovy desert sound continued to thrive in Desert Sessions, a music collective formed by Homme in the early 2000s in which an ever-changing lineup of musicians and songwriters gathered in the High Desert to collaborate. His particular sound can also be heard on the albums Homme produces for other bands, like Arctic Monkeys, Eagles of Death Metal, and CRX — and most recently, on the soundtrack of the German drama In the Fade, a film Homme scored that was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
But mostly you can find it here, the sound that put the middle of nowhere on the musical map.
Kent Black contributed to this article.